They don't make 'em like they used to

post by jasoncrawford · 2021-10-27T19:44:47.098Z · LW · GW · 82 comments

This is a link post for https://rootsofprogress.org/old-vs-modern-stoves

Recently someone on Twitter posted a picture like this, commenting that this kind of stove still works after a hundred years, but “thanks to ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’ you have to replace your new one after 5 years.”

Columbian Stove Works No. 28 “Modern Mistress,” Ulster American Folk Park. Geograph / Kenneth Allen

Of course, durability is not the only attribute that matters.

A stove like this burns wood or coal. That fuel needs to be hauled into the house (and up the steps of a tenement), and the ashes carried out. Solid fuel, unlike natural gas, also generates smoke. If all is in proper order, the chimney carries the smoke away so that it merely pollutes your neighborhood. If not, the smoke could leak into the home, causing a major health hazard to both the lungs and the eyes.

Note also a few missing features:

So, for most people, the convenience, cleanliness, and safety of a modern stove far outweigh its shorter lifespan (which, incidentally, is not 5 years, but 13–15, according to Consumer Reports). In other words: yes, modern stoves do represent progress and improvement, no scare quotes required.

The advantages of gas/electricity, in particular, also outweigh the downside of risking an interruption in these services—an example of Matt Ridley’s observation of how we move “from precarious self-sufficiency to safer mutual interdependence.”

But why can’t a modern stove last a hundred years? I don’t know the technical answer. The electric connections needed for the temperature control are sensitive, presumably. Probably the walls and door are thinner—using less material for cost and efficiency, vs. thick, heavy cast iron.

But I think I know the economic answer, which is: a modern stove designed and built to last a hundred years would be too expensive. It would take a bigger engineering effort (fixed cost) and probably more/better materials (variable cost). And it’s totally unnecessary. While there is something quaint and romantic about very long-lived items, there’s just no real reason a consumer needs them. So no one would pay for the hundred-year stove, and even if someone made it, it would fail in the marketplace.

A mid-tier range costs ~$1500. Amortized over that 15-year life, that’s just $100/year, which is very affordable. Besides, by upgrading every decade or two, consumers get the latest features. Why build a stove to last a hundred years if it’s going to be obsolete long before then?

A few people might, nonetheless, prefer old stoves. And all of us might occasionally enjoy cooking over an open flame on a charcoal grill. But the vast majority of consumers have voted with their wallets to make the old style of stove into an antique.

Some lessons here:


Source for many of the details above about old cookstoves, including the 1868 diary quote: Chapter 3 of More Work for Mother, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan.

This post is based on a Twitter thread.

82 comments

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comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T04:33:17.416Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Stoves may be a bad example, but there are plenty of things that they don’t make like they used to. Without even leaving the kitchen, we can give many examples:

  • Pyrex measuring cups. Formerly made from heat-resistant borosilicate, they are now made of lime glass—and therefore have a far greater chance of explosively shattering (and potentially inflicting serious injury on anyone nearby) when used with very hot liquids (especially ones with a high specific heat, like sugar syrups).
  • Cast-iron fry pans. Very old (70+ years) cast-iron cookware is prized on the secondary market, because it was sanded smooth (and thus could be more effectively seasoned, for a long-lasting non-stick surface); modern cast-iron cookware manufacturing skips this step, resulting in a (much less effective) pebbly surface. (And no, this is not explained by retail price reductions; the [inflation-adjusted] price of a cast-iron pan has not changed by more than ~2x since at least the 1940s.)
  • Heavy-duty aluminum cookware. Guardian Service brand cookware is also prized on the secondary market; nothing remotely like it is made anymore (for example, I once looked into purchasing a modern analogue of a ~1.5-qt. G.S. saucepan, to find that the currently available models have walls literally more than an order of magnitude thinner than the G.S. one; this makes them vastly inferior).
  • Food processors—specifically, the design of food processor feed tubes. Until ~15 years ago, the gold-standard consumer-grade food processor (the Cuisinart) used an extremely simple design of lid / feed tube / pusher assembly, which was very sturdy, very simple to operate, and very easy to clean. Then they (and every other manufacturer along with them) switched (due to, I believe, liability issues for certain quite implausible injury scenarios) to a new design that was dramatically inferior on practical every axis: much flimsier and more prone to breaking, much harder to clean, much more difficult to use.
  • Springform pans. Calphalon used to make a flawlessly designed, and very well-built, springform pan, which was manifestly superior in design to every other product in this category. Today, they still make that pan—but they have changed their manufacturing / QA process such that their new pans regularly rust and fall apart within months or weeks of use (the old version could easily last for decades). No other manufacturer makes a comparable product.
  • Potato mashers. Good luck getting a potato masher like this one today. Currently available models use an inferior design that is far less effective at its task.
  • Manual (rotary) can openers. (See also.)

It is certainly true that “usually, we moved on for a reason.” The problem is that “we” often means “manufacturers of consumer products, whose goal is to maximize their profits, and who serve to fulfill the values of consumers only to the extent that it maximizes their profits”, and the reason often is “because the new, considerably worse, product is cheaper to manufacture and will sell just as well to uninformed (and deliberately misled) consumers, thus increasing profits”.

The ideal is not a static state where everything lasts forever and nothing ever changes. Such a world is impossible and undesirable—even if we could create it, it would be stagnant. The ideal is a dynamic world of progress, of continual upgrading and renewal.

Your ideal is not everyone’s.

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-10-28T14:55:02.292Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure if you're basically agreeing with Jason Crawford's pro-progress point of view, but pointing out a few perceived exceptions; or whether you think that the exceptions to "progress" are, in fact, the rule.

I was able to quickly find new versions of many of the nicer products you mentioned.

Borosilicate glass measuring cups

Sanded smooth cast iron pans

Heavy gauge aluminum cookware

Old-style potato masher

A wide variety of can openers

For some of the products you mentioned, there wasn't enough detail in the description to know what to look for, so I either looked for something that had a similar visual appearance or left it out.

The first 10" cast-iron pans I found cost about $39 smooth-milled and $18 non-smooth-milled. A 3-cup set of borosilicate measuring cups costs $25, while the same sizes from Pyrex cost $18.

Here's an article in the NY Times about Pyrex's switch to tempered glass, the safety worries, and the engineering issues. I'd paste quotes in here, but there are too many relevant bits. You should just read the article and see what you think if you're curious. It's overall take is that these safety worries are exaggerated, although they explain this with your claim that consumers are uninformed about the difference between glass types.

There are about 60 million married couples in the US. Let's say that only 25% of married couples own measuring cups, and no single people do. Then there would be 15 million sets of measuring cups in the US. Let's say that 20% of the price difference above is due to the cost of manufacturing, while the rest is paying the business executives and engineers who implemented the tempered glass design. So that the switch to tempered glass "really" saves $1.40 per person, or about 5% of the price of the (somewhat?) superior product.

Median US household income is about $100,000, so if we extrapolate this trend toward cheaper substitutes to all their spending, as you seem to be implying we ought to do, then this tendency to substitute less-expensive designs for costlier but slightly higher-quality designs is saving couples about $5,000 per year. If you really want the nice stuff, it seems to be available to you either second-hand or new.

So it seems like your frustration with greedy manufacturers stems from a belief that more consumers would prefer the somewhat more expensive, nicer versions of most products. They don't buy them because they're ill-informed. If manufacturers hadn't gone cheap, or been litigated into bad tradeoffs between safety and quality, people would be getting more of what they want without having to think about it.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz, matthew-barnett, SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T16:37:56.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was able to quickly find new versions of many of the nicer products you mentioned.

Sorry, but no, you were not. Considering them one at a time:

Heavy gauge aluminum cookware

Did you look up what I was talking about? Also, did you even look at what was on the search results page you linked? Most of those results aren’t even pots of any kind, but instead are… driveway signage, I guess? Of the ones that are actually cookware, several aren’t even aluminum at all. The ones that are aluminum, are “hard anodized” aluminum, i.e. aluminum with a nonstick coating, which is not what Guardian Service cookware was. Furthermore, they’re made (as is clear upon inspection of images, reviews, etc.) with the same fairly thin construction as almost all modern cookware is—not even in the same ballpark as the G.S. stuff (which had 4mm thick walls at the thinnest, and lacked any kind of coating that could flake off, etc., which is why those items easily last for decades).

Old-style potato masher

That masher (and almost all available on the market today) is markedly inferior in design and construction to the one I linked… which was precisely my point. (Anyone familiar with Russian cuisine will know that potatoes figure prominently in it; and thus I have mashed a considerable number of potatoes in my life[1], and used a variety of different tools to do so. The masher pictured in my link performs better than any other I’ve used.)

A wide variety of can openers

Yes, you can indeed buy the old-style can openers, which I linked precisely to highlight the fact that the newer, fundamentally more convenient to use, rotary can openers, which would be preferable if one could find a good one, are nonetheless inferior in practice despite their superior design, because the manufacturing quality / QA standards are so poor! It is not easy at all to find one that you can reasonably expect to work well and last for a long time—I know, because I’ve tried.

Borosilicate glass measuring cups

An inferior design to the Pyrex cups. (Note the reduced precision of the markings, and the wider cone shape, that further reduces measurement precision. Note also the reviews noting the problems with the pour spouts.)

To see another example—here’s another brand of borosilicate measuring cups which also has the “wider cone” problem, and (see the reviews) is made so poorly that the the markings wear off after mere weeks of use.

This is typical of the situation in many similar markets: an existing, well-designed and well-tested, product is discontinued; other manufacturers rush in to fill the market niche; but their design process and quality standards are dramatically inferior, so while the new product does (at least, upon superficial inspection) possess whatever essential quality made the discontinued product desirable, nevertheless consumers have clearly lost out.

Sanded smooth cast iron pans

From reviews:

The comparisons to Griswold or Wagner do not hold up. This is not grandma's pan, nor should it be compared to them by any reasonable person unless they are selling you something. Sure the cooking surface is good (not great), but they're not as smooth as those old pans when they were new, and the overall quality of this pan is not at all comparable to those older brands. There's no comparison to high-end pans made by any of the other US makers. That's just a marketing gimmick.

It has been really hard to build a new season on the pan. In the image attached, I show a Fields skillet to the right of the GG skillet. The Fields almost immediately began to build a good season coat. I am not sure if it is the type of iron used on GG that will not take a season, or something other. Bottom line, it makes me question the materials used on the GG.

When i opened the box, i expected that "mirror smooth finish like a wagner", but instead it appears there were multiple spots where the casting failed and created deep holes (guessing air bubbles?). You can also see all the grinder marks, though it is smoother than the lodge, the lodge had no flaws in the casting.

The inside is pretty smooth but you can see the machining marks.

And this is typical of the market. A better example would have been the Stargazer brand of cast-iron pans—but note that these are considerably more expensive ($115 for the 10.5-inch model).

For some of the products you mentioned, there wasn’t enough detail in the description to know what to look for, so I either looked for something that had a similar visual appearance or left it out.

(Emphasis mine.)

Yes, this is precisely the problem that I alluded to.

Here’s an article in the NY Times about Pyrex’s switch to tempered glass …

I will comment on the Pyrex issue more later; for now, I will just note that The Wirecutter (the NYT-owned reviews site where the linked article appears) is notorious for its inaccurate and misleading claims.

I’m not sure if you’re basically agreeing with Jason Crawford’s pro-progress point of view, but pointing out a few perceived exceptions; or whether you think that the exceptions to “progress” are, in fact, the rule.

I definitely disagree with the OP’s view. Situations such as the ones I describe are ubiquitous in consumer-product markets. “Progress” in such markets is not nearly as real as people would like to imagine.


  1. Bonus recipe. Peel and coarsely dice large Russet potato; boil in salted water until fork penetrates potato without resistance; drain; mash (just to crumble) with 1 tbsp butter; slowly add heavy cream, while continuing to mash, until smooth (~2–4 tbsp cream, typically). Serve with sour cream, gravy, etc. ↩︎

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-10-28T18:10:21.840Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, did you even look at what was on the search results page you linked? Most of those results aren’t even pots of any kind, but instead are… driveway signage, I guess?

Yes, I did. I don't see "driveway signage" on there, so maybe the same search turns up different results on our two computers, or something? Here's a whole website full of new high-quality heavy-gauge aluminum cookware.

I'm not going to spend a lot of extra time looking for companies manufacturing new versions of the precise design of borosilicate measuring cups and potato mashers that you have in mind. My guess, though, is that if I cared enough, I could probably find something comparable.

You shouldn't be asking whether a person doing a quick epistemic spot check on an internet comment can spot the difference between the particular forms of nice stuff you're interested in, and other things. You should be asking whether a motivated, informed buyer can find what they're looking for. I think they probably can.

I happen to be a pianist, not a cook. If I wanted to find a high-quality new piano, I definitely could. In fact, there are design improvements that have been made in recent decades. And for most people, I think that a relatively inexpensive electronic piano with weighted keys is a better investment than a cheap acoustic. Most people simply will not pay to have their piano regularly tuned, and it's more important to get used to playing music in tune than to get an acoustic sound. Also, shyness and concern for noise levels is often a barrier to practice, so the ability to use headphones really helps.

So in the market for nice stuff that I'm most familiar with, newer is just straight-up better. I think that also holds true in other markets for products that a lot of people use regularly, such as computers and cars.

Most people will happily accept cheaper, lower-quality products, because they only use them occasionally or for purposes that are within the capability of those products to handle. My cooking, and my ability to improve my cooking, is definitely not bottlenecked by the quality of my cookware or, say, the precise design of my measuring cups. So I'm happy to buy inexpensive, probably crappy products, and spend my money elsewhere.

My girlfriend, who's an excellent cook, feels differently. She shops for nice stuff at thrift stores, because she enjoys bargain hunting and her time/income tradeoff is such that it makes more sense for her to search for grandma's old things at Goodwill rather than to spent a few minutes finding what she wants new online.

If you want to make an argument that we could all be enjoying better cast-iron, thicker aluminum cookware, borosilicate measuring cups, and of course the sturdiest of potato-mashers, at a price equivalent to what we're paying now for worse stuff, then I'd be interested to hear it! Right now, it just looks to me like we are mainly dealing with a quality/cost tradeoff, and that the vast majority of people prefer cheaper and lower-quality stuff. Those who become aficionados, like yourself, then upgrade their equipment when it becomes a bottleneck, or just when they feel like it.

I don't want to oversell this argument. I think you probably can find examples of products where the market for high-quality stuff is too small to support its manufacture, where that demand can be satisfied by the second-hand market, or where knowledge of how to make the nice stuff has died out. I just think that, in aggregate, progress permits people to purchase goods and services at an expanding range of quality/cost tradeoffs, and that it often simply improves the quality of products while also making them cheaper.

I could imagine a couple mechanisms that might drive a trend of quality/cost tradeoffs that we might not be comfortable with. I'm talking about a substantial worsening quality, with only a modest decrease in price, for goods and services bought infrequently.

One such mechanism is that high-quality goods require skilled manufacturers. Perhaps people with those skills are being pulled into more profitable areas of the economy. The engineer who at one time would have built heavy-gauge aluminum cookware is now working in the computer industry, and cooks everywhere are suffering for it. Baumol strikes again. While people might mostly be glad that we can get such nice computers, the potato-mashing victims of this trend might find that it overall makes their lives worse.

The other is at the intersection between information asymmetry and economies of scale. I don't really know (or believe) that there's such a big difference between borosilicate and tempered glass that it's worth my time to investigate. Pyrex can therefore sell me the cheap version, but price it higher, and pocket the difference. Nobody can outcompete them by offering an almost-as-cheap borosilicate version, both because they can't compete with Pyrex's brand name recognition and scale, and also because I, being an idiot about cookware, would still buy the Pyrex version. So you, an expert cook, are stuck buying much more expensive borosilicate with a slightly worse shape, because idiots like me are incentivizing Pyrex to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It's a race to the bottom in these unhappy circumstances.

These aren't crazy to me, I think that with sufficient investigation you could provide sufficient evidence that this is really what's happening in particular cases. But overall, I think that people can almost always get their needs satisfied better and cheaper via normal economic progress of the kind that Jason is talking about here. Also, that even in the worst-case scenario, you can still buy either a handcrafted piece on commission, or buy vintage - and that your ability to find and afford such products is enhanced by progress in other areas of the economy.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz, matthew-barnett
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T19:10:38.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, did you even look at what was on the search results page you linked? Most of those results aren’t even pots of any kind, but instead are… driveway signage, I guess?

Yes, I did. I don’t see “driveway signage” on there, so maybe the same search turns up different results on our two computers, or something?

The search results page you linked to, as it appears for me.

Here’s a whole website full of new high-quality heavy-gauge aluminum cookware.

That’s closer (in some ways), but it’s still not the same thing. (Note, by the way, that this manufacturer doesn’t seem to ship to the United States, and is not available via Amazon, nor, as far as I can tell, via any distributor that caters to the American market.)

Are you just putting “heavy-gauge aluminum cookware” into Google and pasting the search results here? What in the world makes you think that this will yield meaningful results without being familiar with what you’re looking for in the first place?

I’m not going to spend a lot of extra time looking for companies manufacturing new versions of the precise design of borosilicate measuring cups and potato mashers that you have in mind. My guess, though, is that if I cared enough, I could probably find something comparable.

What’s the point of discussing your guesses, when either of us could, if we wanted to, actually check—and one of us has?

You shouldn’t be asking whether a person doing a quick epistemic spot check on an internet comment can spot the difference between the particular forms of nice stuff you’re interested in, and other things. You should be asking whether a motivated, informed buyer can find what they’re looking for. I think they probably can.

Yes. You should be asking that. And I am a motivated, informed buyer.

I happen to be a pianist, not a cook. If I wanted to find a high-quality new piano, I definitely could.

But the topic of discussion was cookware, not pianos. More importantly: how many people use pianos, and how many people use cookware? Which of these is more relevant to the day-to-day experience of people in our society? Which is more relevant to questions about “progress in consumer products” or the like?

So in the market for nice stuff that I’m most familiar with, newer is just straight-up better. I think that also holds true in other markets for products that a lot of people use regularly, such as computers and cars.

It most certainly does not hold true for computers. I am hesitant to launch into the computer analogue of this argument, but I could easily provide a list, similar to the one in my top-level comment, of ways in which various computer products have degenerated in quality, etc.

My girlfriend, who’s an excellent cook, feels differently. She shops for nice stuff at thrift stores, because she enjoys bargain hunting and her time/income tradeoff is such that it makes more sense for her to search for grandma’s old things at Goodwill rather than to spent a few minutes finding what she wants new online.

Do you really think that this is not at all related to the availability (or lack thereof), via a few minutes spent online, of stuff comparable to what your girlfriend prefers to use?

If you want to make an argument that we could all be enjoying better cast-iron, thicker aluminum cookware, borosilicate measuring cups, and of course the sturdiest of potato-mashers, at a price equivalent to what we’re paying now for worse stuff, then I’d be interested to hear it! Right now, it just looks to me like we are mainly dealing with a quality/cost tradeoff, and that the vast majority of people prefer cheaper and lower-quality stuff. Those who become aficionados, like yourself, then upgrade their equipment when it becomes a bottleneck, or just when they feel like it.

The problem is precisely that aficionados, quite often, do not upgrade—in the modern sense of “switch to a newer model, and/or the more expensive version of the current models”—but rather (in that same sense) downgrade; which is to say, we switch to an older and better version of the product, which is no longer being manufactured.

And remember that we’re talking about cooking here, not some exotic activity. How many people cook? And thus (taking some fraction of that population) how many cooking “aficionados” are there? It’s not a small number! We’re not talking about a tiny, dedicated cadre of “hardcore” home cooks.

You ask if we could be enjoying better stuff at a price equivalent to what we’re now paying for the worse stuff. Consider this: in 1956, a 10.5-inch Griswold cast-iron skillet cost $2.69 ($27.53 in 2021 dollars). Today, you cannot purchase a comparable item for that price, or even for twice that price. Why is this? Shouldn’t technological advancements make it cheaper to manufacture simple household goods? If it’s now impossible to produce an item of comparable quality for an equal or lower price—why? What has gone wrong?

I don’t want to oversell this argument. I think you probably can find examples of products where the market for high-quality stuff is too small to support its manufacture, where that demand can be satisfied by the second-hand market, or where knowledge of how to make the nice stuff has died out.

But this isn’t the case for cookware. The market for high-quality stuff isn’t small. Demand can’t be satisfied by the second-hand market. Knowledge of how to make the nice stuff hasn’t died out. It’s just that it’s more profitable to have many of your customers purchase low-quality goods, be dissatisfied with them, and then be unable to do anything about it.

I just think that, in aggregate, progress permits people to purchase goods and services at an expanding range of quality/cost tradeoffs, and that it often simply improves the quality of products while also making them cheaper.

But I’ve given at least a half-dozen examples where that’s manifestly not the case. Are you simply saying that cases like the ones I’ve described constitute a minority of all consumer goods? If so, then on what basis would you make this claim?

I could imagine a couple mechanisms that might drive a trend of quality/cost tradeoffs that we might not be comfortable with. I’m talking about a substantial worsening quality, with only a modest decrease in price, for goods and services bought infrequently. … The other is at the intersection between information asymmetry and economies of scale.

Yes. You’ve got it. This is precisely what is happening, in the cases that I’ve described, and in many, many others. (Once again, see Bruce Tognazzini’s famous essay on this dynamic.)

These aren’t crazy to me, I think that with sufficient investigation you could provide sufficient evidence that this is really what’s happening in particular cases. But overall, I think that people can almost always get their needs satisfied better and cheaper via normal economic progress of the kind that Jason is talking about here.

I’m sorry, but this reads to me like a declaration of faith. If multiple counterexamples (just in one category of goods!), described in detail by someone well-versed in the relevant domain, don’t cause you to update your beliefs on this, is your view truly a reasonable one?

Also, that even in the worst-case scenario, you can still buy either a handcrafted piece on commission, or buy vintage—and that your ability to find and afford such products is enhanced by progress in other areas of the economy.

The “buy a handcrafted piece on commission” comment is, frankly, laughable, and I’ll assume that you did not mean it seriously. As for buying vintage—yes, of course I can do this. But: firstly, it’s not even always possible to buy vintage (for example, the springform pan I described is often simply unavailable on eBay and similar sites). And second—the more things I have to buy vintage, the more this seems to me to be an obvious indication that our society’s ability to provide essential products is deeply unhealthy.

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-10-28T19:41:35.111Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The search results page you linked to, as it appears for me.

Yes, our results look completely different from each other. Sorry about that!

Are you just putting “heavy-gauge aluminum cookware” into Google and pasting the search results here?

No, I was searching for aluminum cookware of a specific mm thickness (i.e. "4mm thick aluminum pot"), and then checking the thickness of the results to see if it was at least 4mm. I repeated this with 5mm and 8mm.

It most certainly does not hold true for computers. I am hesitant to launch into the computer analogue of this argument, but I could easily provide a list, similar to the one in my top-level comment, of ways in which various computer products have degenerated in quality, etc.

This seems very out there, and in line with some of the ways in which your hyper-focus on minutiae is causing you to miss the point. Computers are transparently, overwhelmingly better, year by year, decade by decade. 

With cooking vs. piano, I understand your point, but I also think that the evidence you're supplying cuts both ways. A country full of cooks, who ought to be informed enough not to fall for manufacturer's tricks, still haven't successfully created a market for mainstream borosilicate glass measuring cups or thick-walled aluminum pots. That could mean that the manufacturers are just so conniving and powerful that they've still managed to get away with marketing the worse products and pocket the difference. Or it could mean that, even to the vast majority of competent cooks, the price difference means more than the quality difference.

By contrast, even in a country/world deficient in serious pianists, we have managed to sustain an industry capable of maintaining and even improving the technology of new-built pianos, at every price point. This suggests to me that informed demand on the part of consumers for various quality/cost tradeoffs is what's driving manufacturing decisions, not so much the exploitation of fools.

In fact, let's think about the vintage cookware market. If that stuff is somewhat more expensive to manufacture, but it's also very durable, then perhaps what's going on is that the high-quality manufacturers are forced to compete against the secondhand market, which is able to circulate, rather than manufacture, a nearly-adequate quantity of high-quality durable cookware sufficient to meet the needs of aficionados like yourself. I, by contrast, would not care to invest the money to buy such nice stuff. I like things that are lightweight, easy to clean, cheap, and disposable, because I don't have a nice kitchen to put them in, and I'm still at a stage in my life where I'm moving often.

 If multiple counterexamples (just in one category of goods!), described in detail by someone well-versed in the relevant domain, don’t cause you to update your beliefs on this, is your view truly a reasonable one?

You've updated my beliefs somewhat in the realm of cookware, although I still think you're exaggerating the inaccessibility of new-manufactured high-quality cookware. More importantly, though, I don't base my entire economic point of view on the economics of measuring cups. I think you've probably just found a niche area in which your perspective is at least plausible, and have then tried to extrapolate your kitchen-focused point of view into a sweeping belief about the state of the economy as a whole.

And second—the more things I have to buy vintage, the more this seems to me to be an obvious indication that our society’s ability to provide essential products is deeply unhealthy.

This is interesting to me. Most of the serious cooks I know enjoy and appreciate their ability to buy what they need vintage. From an alternative point of view, we could view this as a phenomenon in which society has successfully reallocated its skilled manufacturers from a domain where we no longer need their expertise as much - cookware - to other domains in which their expertise is needed much more.

In any case, this is becoming a bit of a rabbit hole, and also somewhat socially unpleasant. If you respond, I'll read and consider what you write, but I don't expect to continue the discussion further.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T20:24:30.581Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think that we’ve exhausted most of what it would be fruitful to discuss in this thread; the remaining disagreements would probably take more effort to resolve than would be feasible to expend at this time (for either of us). I do want to comment on this part, though:

It most certainly does not hold true for computers. I am hesitant to launch into the computer analogue of this argument, but I could easily provide a list, similar to the one in my top-level comment, of ways in which various computer products have degenerated in quality, etc.

This seems very out there, and in line with some of the ways in which your hyper-focus on minutiae is causing you to miss the point. Computers are transparently, overwhelmingly better, year by year, decade by decade.

Conversely, I would say that computers are transparently (!) not “overwhelmingly better, year by year, decade by decade”. They’re certainly better in some ways, but also much worse in other ways. (Input latency is one well-studied example, but there are quite a few others.)

It is also noteworthy that many of the ways in which computer hardware has improved (“raw” performance characteristics such as clock speed, memory capacity, storage capacity, etc.) are used to support behaviors that are of dubious value at best (various fancy compositor features and graphical capabilities of window managers), and user-hostile at worst (adtech and other dark patterns of the modern web).

Understand that the things I am referring to, when I make claims like the one you quoted, are not “minutiae”; rather, they are basic aspects of the everyday user experience of the great majority of personal computer users in the world.

Replies from: cousin_it
comment by cousin_it · 2021-10-28T22:57:58.738Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Input latency and unpredictability of it. One famous example is that for many years there were usable finger-drumming apps on iOS but not on Android, because on Android you couldn't make the touchscreen + app + OS + sound system let people actually drum in time. Something would always introduce a hundred ms of latency (give or take) at random moments, which is enough to mess up the feeling. Everyone knew it and no one could fix it.

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-10-28T18:40:42.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So in the market for nice stuff that I'm most familiar with, newer is just straight-up better. I think that also holds true in other markets for products that a lot of people use regularly, such as computers and cars.

I agree. I don't buy much cookware, and I was surprised to see Said Achmiz come up with so many good examples of cookware declining in quality.

I'd be interested in seeing how this compares to other markets. My guess is that cookware might fall on a rather extreme end of a spectrum, where on the other end we would see computer hardware and accessories, which has definitely not declined in quality.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T19:18:13.998Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

… computer hardware and accessories, which has definitely not declined in quality

This is not my experience. I can easily provide examples from the computer hardware / accessory market where there’s been a decline in quality. (Three examples just off the top of my head: MacBook keyboards, buckling-spring desktop keyboards, and consumer-grade wireless routers.)

Replies from: korin43, matthew-barnett
comment by korin43 · 2021-11-02T14:49:27.774Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

MacBook keyboards, buckling-spring desktop keyboards, and consumer-grade wireless routers.

These are strange things to cite. Keyboards are optimizing for something you clearly don't want (cheapness for most keyboards, thinness for laptop keyboards, and fashion for anything from Apple), but that doesn't mean you can't get the "better" ones. Laptops with mechanical keyboards exist, they're just not very popular: https://www.fifthgeek.com/laptops-with-mechanical-keyboards/

(I'm assuming you're aware that mechanical desktop keyboards still exist)

I'm not sure what you're talking about for consumer grade routers. According to this article, the WRT54G cost $199 in 2001 (~$300 today with inflation). For the same price today, I could buy a router that's 20x faster, supports significantly more concurrent clients, has security that actually works, and is more stable (not to mention all the other bells and whistles new routers have, like how they almost all support printers and network storage).

Or I could get a router that's only 10x faster than the WRT54G (and has security that actually works, etc.) for $60.

Or I could get a low-end enterprise router for $300 if I care about enterprisey features more than raw speed.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-02T17:41:50.406Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These are strange things to cite. Keyboards are optimizing for something you clearly don’t want (cheapness for most keyboards, thinness for laptop keyboards, and fashion for anything from Apple), but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the “better” ones.

I’m sorry, but this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If this were the case, then either (a) MacBooks with significantly better keyboards than the current ones would never have existed (but in fact they very much did and I am typing on one right now), or, at the very least, (b) change in Apple laptop keyboards over time would’ve been monotonic in the direction of increasing thinness and cheapness and decreasing quality (but in fact nothing remotely like this is true).

Laptops with mechanical keyboards exist, they’re just not very popular: https://www.fifthgeek.com/laptops-with-mechanical-keyboards/

Laptop keyboards need not be mechanical (in this sense) to be good, as demonstrated by the MacBook Pro on which I am typing this comment.

(I’m assuming you’re aware that mechanical desktop keyboards still exist)

I am aware. I do not particularly like modern mechanical keyboards, but I recognize that reasonable people can differ on this point.

But note that I did not say “mechanical desktop keyboards”. What I said was “buckling-spring desktop keyboards”—which also still exist, but they are of an inferior quality, because the plastic parts are molded using three-decade-old, worn-down tooling. No one is producing that manufacturing equipment anymore; no one is making new buckling-spring keyboards that match the build quality of the old ones (to say nothing of “better”).

I’m not sure what you’re talking about for consumer grade routers. …

I used a WRT54GL for a decade, and have owned three Archer C7/A7 boxes so far (as well as various other Linksys, TP-Link, and Netgear devices), so yes, I am familiar with the market. Merely citing the prices, speeds, and advertised features of the available router models is missing the point entirely—I am talking about quality, not modern-ness. However, I am not sure that this is a discussion I want to get into at this time.

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-11-02T19:18:40.187Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not particularly like modern mechanical keyboards, but I recognize that reasonable people can differ on this point.

But note that I did not say “mechanical desktop keyboards”. What I said was “buckling-spring desktop keyboards”

To what extent do you think your argument is merely that "we don't make the old stuff anymore" as opposed to "the new stuff is worse than the old stuff"?

Like, suppose instead of growing up with buckling-spring keyboards, you grew up with mechanical keyboards, which became obsolete with the release of buckling-spring keyboards. In that world, would we be having the same conversation about how they don't make 'em like they used to, except in regards to the inferior buckling spring mechanism?

It's well known that people are nostalgic about the past, and status-quo bias is well-documented. In what sense can you reasonably assert that the new stuff is worse rather than merely different? And what general measure would you propose to test this claim?

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-02T19:42:20.616Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn’t grow up with buckling-spring keyboards. The first keyboard I owned was an AppleDesign Keyboard (beige, model M2980, non-mechanical, with the membrane-based design), which was of mediocre quality at best. I discovered mechanical keyboards (the older Apple Extended and Apple Extended II keyboards were the first I saw) later, and buckling-spring keyboards (the even older IBM Model M) even later. I didn’t get much of a chance to use a buckling-spring keyboard to type on until I had been using computers for many years. However, it was immediately obvious, at each stage of that discovery process, that mechanical keyboards were superior to non-mechanicals, and that buckling-spring keyboards even more so (for typing).

Similarly, the first laptop I owned was the original “Dual USB” white iBook. At around that time, I got a job in a small shop that sold and repaired Macs and other Apple products, and so, for about five years, I had the chance to test every Mac laptop, every Apple-made desktop keyboard, etc. I’ve also owned a succession of Apple laptops since then, culminating in the MacBook Pro whose specs I linked upthread. That first iBook’s keyboard was emphatically not the best laptop keyboard I’ve ever used; actually, it was fairly bad. Apple’s laptop keyboards improved substantially over the years… and then, that trend reversed, quite dramatically.

So, you see, my view does not boil down to “nostalgia-tinted glasses”. And given my experience, I can confidently assert that the new stuff is worse than the old stuff.

(By the way… it is telling, I think, that you assumed that the older products whose quality I claimed to be superior were simply the things I’d grown up with, and had gotten used to—despite the fact that I have given no indication of this, no hint that this should be the case! Yet to you it seemed like an assumption so natural as to be made unconsciously. Does this not seem to you to be significant, to be indicative of something worth investigating further?)

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-11-02T20:18:23.851Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn’t grow up with buckling-spring keyboards.

Point taken. This is good evidence that you don't have "nostalgia-tinted glasses" as you put it.

By the way… it is telling, I think, that you assumed that the older products whose quality I claimed to be superior were simply the things I’d grown up with, and had gotten used to—despite the fact that I have given no indication of this, no hint that this should be the case! [...]


Does this not seem to you to be significant, to be indicative of something worth investigating further?

I don't know how old you are, but I referred to growing up in a more general sense, to mean that those things were around when you were a child. In context, it referred to a reversal of what had been the actual progression of technology. Of course, I'd agree it was an unwise choice of wording -- more off-the-cuff than anything.

I don't know what you mean by the last part. Perhaps you mean that I could have deep biases, blinding me from an objective analysis here. Can you clarify?

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-02T20:38:19.734Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don’t know what you mean by the last part. Perhaps you mean that I could have deep biases, blinding me from an objective analysis here. Can you clarify?

Sure. My meaning is perhaps essentially as you say, but with rather different emphasis. I do not think that it is terribly useful to look for personal biases here (and it seems unlikely that you should have any unique or unusual bias in this regard).

It seems more likely (or in any case it’s more fruitful to approach the matter thus) that the bias is “in the water”, so to speak. Neophilia (and its complement, which the internet informs me should be called ‘paliophobia’) is deeply ingrained in modern Western culture. The assumption of progress, too, is deeply ingrained (the OP is hardly making a novel or surprising argument, for instance). From this it follows that anyone who prefers the old to the new, in any context, cannot be doing so for any ‘rational’ reason. And thus when you hear that someone has this preference, you assume that it’s due to nostalgia, etc.

But the consequence of this is that it’s more difficult for you to notice cases where the old is better than the new. You see that someone prefers the old; you say “ah, mere nostalgia”; you therefore do not investigate the question of why they prefer the old to the new (and why would you, if you already have the answer?); and so you never get the chance to learn whether, in this case, the old is better, even if that is actually true.

Of course this is nothing but another of (as Eliezer once put it) the thousand faces of confirmation bias (and thus should not at all surprise us).

I apologize, by the way, for this blatant Bulverism. I don’t actually know, to any great degree of certainty, whether your views on this topic are informed largely (or even partially) by any bias of this kind! I am quite ready to accept a denial of any such fault in you, personally.

I only want to point out that it is a very common sort of distortion, easily discernible in many, many discussions like this. I’ve encountered it more times than I can count. I think that it’s very much worth being wary of it, and perhaps even worth making a special effort to counteract.

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-11-02T21:58:12.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neophilia (and its complement, which the internet informs me should be called ‘paliophobia’) is deeply ingrained in modern Western culture. The assumption of progress, too, is deeply ingrained (the OP is hardly making a novel or surprising argument, for instance).

Consider a few facts for a moment,

  • "In 1982, the second major study of [the hostile media effect] was undertaken; pro-Palestinian students and pro-Israeli students at Stanford University were shown the same news filmstrips pertaining to the then-recent Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Lebanese militia fighters abetted by the Israeli army in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. On a number of objective measures, both sides found that these identical news clips were slanted in favor of the other side."
  • Economist Paul Krugman writes, "the obvious bias in things like acceptance of papers at major journals is towards, not against, a doctrinaire free-market view." Whereas economist Bryan Caplan claims, "Even among economists, market-oriented policy prescriptions are often seen as too dogmatic."
  • 69 to 25 percent of Republicans and Democrats believe big tech is biased in favor of liberals, compared to 5 to 19 percent of Republicans and Democrats believing big tech is biased in favor of conservatives.

Now consider, regarding the assumption of progress,

  • In the United states, 41 percent believe that things are worse now than they were 50 years ago, compared to 37 percent who believe it is better. When you ask people about finances specifically, this goes to 45 percent compared to 32 percent compared to 20 years ago, with differences being larger in Greece, the UK, Italy, France and Spain -- nations traditionally considered at the heart of Western culture.
  • "More than two-thirds (68%) of U.S. respondents said they think today’s children will be financially worse off as adults than their parents, up from 60% in 2019. Only 32% think children will be better off." Source.
  • In 2017, "Four in ten Americans (39%) think the odds that global warming will cause humans to become extinct are 50% or higher."

I'm sure you're familiar with these types of facts. I could continue with them, but I don't think it's necessary to add much more for the point I'm trying to make.

The first set of facts, I believe, collectively implies that people are not consistently able to read whether a particular culture is actually biased in the way they claim. Often, an accusation of bias reveals the opposite: namely that the speaker is biased themselves. 

The interpretation of bias comes from the fact that the world is not far enough in the direction of how the speaker wants it to be, even if it is indeed quite far. It's easier to see the biases in other people than to see the biases in yourself. Hence how you can get Paul Krugman writing about how market fundamentalism rules his field, all the while his own Nobel Prize speaks to the opposite truth.

I'm not just accusing you of just the same thing. I do suspect that you are doing something like the equivalent of what Paul Krugman does, as your top comment is currently upvoted more highly than the post itself. But this is not the entirety of my objection.

Instead I'd just ask you to consider as a test of your thesis, to propose an actual general measure for progress in consumer goods. 

Imagine a world in which, over time, we expect 15% of things to get worse and 85% of things to get better. In such a world, one could spend an inordinate amount of time finding example after example of things that have gotten worse, because there are a lot of consumer goods. But that would prove approximately nothing, as it would ignore the 85% of goods that got better.

I understand that such a measure would be difficult to construct. The inherent subjectivity of the subject is what makes it difficult. But, perhaps as Richard Feynman once said, "'Oh you're dealing with psychological matters. These things can't be defined so precisely.' Yes, but then you can't claim to know anything about it."

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-02T22:07:49.735Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hang on, though. Before I respond to the rest of your comment, I want to point out that the second set of bullet points you list do not have anything at all to do with what I am talking about. You see that, yes? (Or were those points not meant to be responsive to the quoted bit from my comment? But in that case, what is their significance…?)

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-11-02T22:19:48.647Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before I respond to the rest of your comment, I want to point out that the second set of bullet points you list do not have anything at all to do with what I am talking about. You see that, yes?

You stated,

The assumption of progress, too, is deeply ingrained (the OP is hardly making a novel or surprising argument, for instance).

I interpreted the assumption of progress as referring to one of these two possibilities,

  1. The world has gotten better
  2. The world will get better in the future

This makes a lot of sense considering Jason Crawford's other posts.

My first bullet point addresses the first interpretation. It points out that the assumption of progress is not "deeply ingrained" as you claimed. It seems more that about half of people, or less, believe that the world has gotten better.

My other two bullet points address the second interpretation of the assumption of progress.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-02T22:38:59.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neither of those interpretations are (a) what I meant, nor (b) entailed by the OP.

There are also several other serious problems with the points you made, having to do with their provenance, the possibility of sensibly interpreting them, etc.

However, I’m afraid I am becoming increasingly uncertain that it’s productive to continue this conversation…

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-11-02T22:47:35.284Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Look, forget the specific bullet points for now.

I am interested in a direct way of testing this hypothesis. The part about the assumption of progress was a minor digression. I hope you will understand.

The specific aim I had was to dispel the objection that I was merely biased. I may be biased. In fact, I probably am. But these sorts of arguments don't normally lead anywhere. People pick "sides" and accuse the other side of being biased. But, as you wrote yourself, what matters is what's actually true.

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-10-28T20:45:40.228Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There will of course be a few examples of declining progress in any domain. But it would take a ton of evidence to convince me that there's been a general decline in the quality in computer hardware, given the mountains of evidence otherwise.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T20:58:31.969Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, there’s a couple of things to say here.

First—why, actually, should there be “a few examples of declining progress”? We accept this as normal, but why? It doesn’t seem to me to be what we’d expect, on the basis of the naive view of free-market capitalism and so on. At the least, such phenomena (especially if they’re so ubiquitous as to merit an “of course”!) seem like puzzles that we need to explain.

Second—I do have quite a lot of evidence for my view, of course. (I don’t think it’s worthwhile to present it here in this comment thread, though. But I’ll give some thought to the best way to organize my thoughts on this, and perhaps we might return to it.)

Third—I don’t, actually, think that we have “mountains of evidence” for the contrary (i.e., mainstream) view. I entirely understand why you say that we do, and I readily admit that it is indeed the mainstream consensus that we do, indeed, have these “mountains”, but I think that belief about how much evidence we have (for the “progress-affirming view”) is mistaken.

Clearly, that third point is entirely non-obvious, and demands justification. I am, at this time, not providing any such thing. I say this only to make known the general shape of my position—without, for the moment, defending it.

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-10-28T21:22:43.959Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First—why, actually, should there be “a few examples of declining progress”?... It doesn’t seem to me to be what we’d expect, on the basis of the naive view of free-market capitalism and so on.

Well, the answer's obvious, no? The naive view is wrong.

Economists have studied ways how markets don't reflect consumer preferences for decades. There are reasonable people on both sides: some people say that these failures are exaggerated, and some say that they haven't been emphasized enough. But I haven't seen many respectable economists argue that the market always and uniformly reflects the needs of fully informed consumers.

Here's one example of Tyler Cowen, a pro-market economist, talking about planned obsolescence. Or you can read his book in which he claims that progress in consumer goods has been unimpressive recently.

As you fully admitted, you are not providing the full evidence for your claim about computer hardware, and so I cannot meaningfully evaluate it.

However, I should note that such debate often draw people into intense, but rather fruitless disputes over definitions [LW · GW]. What does progress mean? How can we judge the quality of a consumer good from an objective point of view?

I don't mean to downplay the strength of the examples you pointed to. I think they're actually rather fascinating. But, if we were to continue the debate further, I would wish to caution you about the following.

I have now been in many similar debates about "progress" with people before, and it seems that one or both sides will often merely assert an "obvious" benchmark for progress. Yet this obvious benchmark usually seems oddly ad-hoc and, uncharitably, appears to be chosen deliberately to make the speaker's thesis look correct. Alternative benchmarks, which to others seem profoundly important, get handwaved away as "not ultimately meaningful" by the other side, and vice versa.

I think ultimately a lot of this comes down to simple differences in preferences. People often just disagree about what's considered "good" and that's OK; not unexpected at all. A diversity of opinion about whether something is "better" than another thing is pretty much exactly what I'd expect, given the diversity of human thoughts, feelings, and values.

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-10-28T18:27:44.353Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Median US household income is about $100,000

It's actually around $67,500

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-10-28T19:23:20.089Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Correct! I did look this up, and now I'm not sure which page I was looking at. Wish I'd linked it so that I could at least see where I went wrong. I'll update in a minute.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T17:11:30.193Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the Pyrex question:

The linked article contains a lot of commentary that boils down to “yes, the problem exists and is as described, but … is it really that bad if your glassware sometimes explodes?” Well… yes. Yes, actually, it is. Then there’s stuff like this:

In many cases, the instances of exploding Pyrex reported to SaferProducts.gov and in various customer reviews online seem to be occurring as a result of people using the bakeware improperly (putting a dish under the broiler, for instance, or adding water to a hot pan). Oftentimes the reviewer isn’t even aware that they’ve used the bakeware inappropriately. This could be because they’re not familiar with Pyrex’s switch to tempered glass (which has a lower resistance to thermal stress), or because they’ve simply neglected to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

In other words, the new stuff is indeed less heat-resistant, but that’s ok, because the instruction manual says “this is not heat-resistant”! Gee, thanks. This is rather like purchasing a car with brakes that fail at speeds over 60 mph, and being told “you’re not supposed to be driving that fast anyway—read the manual!”.

Here’s Consumer Reports on the matter:

The main way to avoid this effect [i.e., explosion/shattering] is to be mindful of how quickly you change the temperature of Pyrex. Stove tops and broilers conduct heat quickly, and will likely cause the bowls to fail. Taking a bowl directly from the freezer and putting it into a hot oven might also trigger breakage.

(Emphasis in original.)

Oh, well, that’s fine. It’s a good thing that there aren’t, for example, any common recipes that call for something to be chilled in the refrigerator/freezer prior to being placed directly into a preheated oven… oh, wait. Hmm.

By the way, weren’t we just reading (in the Wirecutter article) that the manufacturer’s instructions tell us not to subject Pyrex products to heat stress, and that therefore the reduced heat resistance isn’t a problem (since we have been warned)? Consumer Reports again:

The Pyrex website makes no mention of a change in materials, and does not specify what type of glass is used in their products. They claim: “PYREX glassware products can go directly from refrigerator or freezer to a microwave, convection, or preheated conventional oven.”

Since Pyrex is no longer made of the same special thermal shock resistant glass, one should take extra care when using it. Do not place Pyrex on your stove top. Do not change its temperature rapidly, regardless of what the website says. Pyrex, in its current incarnation, should be treated more like any other piece of glass.

Hmm.

Here’s a Gizmodo article about the problem of Pyrex. Some quotes:

But still, exploding Pyrex incidents do happen, and they keep happening. Following more reports of exploding and shattering Pyrex containers, Popular Science replicated an explosion incident in 2011, showing in a video how small amounts of stress can lead to dramatic breakage incidents due to thermal shock. Not long thereafter, scientists with the American Ceramic Society conducted a study called “Shattering Glassware Cookware,” reviewing reports of incidents involving exploding cookware, namely that made by Pyrex. The article’s authors also examined the glass itself and discussed the chemical and practical differences between borosilicate and soda lime glass. “Soda lime silicate cookware is borderline,” they warned in their conclusion. “It does not appear to be adequate for all household cooking.”

After that study was published, Pyrex parent company World Kitchen sued the publisher of the article as well as its authors in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The company claimed that the scientific research made false and disparaging claims about Pyrex cookware—specifically its resistance to thermal breakage—and asked the court to have the paper suppressed. World Kitchen ultimately lost the lawsuit on all counts.

Yet, the explosions continue. Around the same time the class action suit was filed, one Gizmodo employee experienced an explosion herself after microwaving some refrigerated black beans in a Pyrex container for a few seconds. The container exploded, though the glass shards were contained in the microwave. To the best of her knowledge, she followed all of the safety instructions, but the situation does bear resemblance to the defect in Pyrex products others have pointed out. Even slight changes in temperature can cause the glass to shatter or explode, and when that happens, the consequences can be dangerous.

Replies from: PP, korin43
comment by PP · 2021-10-28T17:30:02.207Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That remind me of what we had in our house.  It wasn't used much for cooking, stews maybe that's all I recall.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T17:33:42.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, did you mean to post this under one of my other comments? I would be quite surprised to see glass cookware being used for a stew!

comment by korin43 · 2021-11-09T16:27:01.198Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The linked article contains a lot of commentary that boils down to “yes, the problem exists and is as described, but … is it really that bad if your glassware sometimes explodes?”

This is a completely misleading summary of the article. It gives several reasons why most people would probably prefer the new Pyrex over old Pyrex:

  • It's cheaper
  • When it does shatter, it's less dangerous
  • It's less likely to break when you drop it

Note regarding the original article: Pyrex is a weird thing to focus on anyway though, since borosilicate glass bakeware is still easy to find (OXO makes it), it's just not made by Pyrex.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-09T17:32:15.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a completely misleading summary of the article.

It’s not a misleading summary of the article, because it’s not a summary of the article at all.

The article does contain a lot of commentary on the explosion issue. That commentary can be summarized as I said.

The article also contains a lot of other stuff. I did not say anything about any of that.

Note regarding the original article: Pyrex is a weird thing to focus on anyway though, since borosilicate glass bakeware is still easy to find (OXO makes it), it’s just not made by Pyrex.

OXO does not make borosilicate measuring cups (nor tempered glass ones, for that matter; their measuring cups are all made of plastic), which is what my comment specifically referenced.

OXO does make borosilicate pie plates, loaf pans, etc. But this in itself ought to make us ask: if your reasons to prefer new Pyrex to old Pyrex are so compelling, why is it that OXO makes its bakeware out of borosilicate, and not tempered glass? Surely it’s just as good if a pie plate is cheaper, less dangerous when it shatters, and less likely to break when it’s dropped, as it is if a measuring cup has those qualities?

But no, none of that holds water. The switch from borosilicate to lime glass as the material of choice for Pyrex measuring cups is driven by profit considerations. The rest is a set of transparent excuses.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2021-11-05T15:01:55.412Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am also worried that we are in a lot of Inadequate Equilibria [? · GW] - and that it might get worse. But I think your explanation is too simple:

“manufacturers of consumer products, whose goal is to maximize their profits, and who serve to fulfill the values of consumers only to the extent that it maximizes their profits”, and the reason often is “because the new, considerably worse, product is cheaper to manufacture and will sell just as well to uninformed (and deliberately misled) consumers, thus increasing profits”.

This argument would work for all domains including new great stuff people do like and have no complaints about today. Also, easily influenceable people existed at all times. I guess there have been a lot of inferior products 100 years ago too. You just don't see them today. So this could be availability or survivorship bias.

 I think a better explanation would look like this (not saying this checks out if challenged):

The industry providing household goods and esp. metal cookware was once a much bigger fraction of industry overall. It was closer to the edge of innovation at that time - mass produced high quality metal products making it to the market in many areas. Especially metal working was making big strides and benefits were easily observable and there was a lot attention on this. 

Compare this to know where innovation has moved on and whoever produces cookware now has to compete with metal working engineers in a lot of very different more specialized industries. Just retaining existing knowledge of metal working is hard and will degrade over time as it gets more and more difficult to hire and train people interested in driving this forward.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-05T16:04:27.834Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the subject of “this proves too much” (which is more or less what you’re saying, yes?), I disagree, but that is quite a long discussion and I’m afraid I don’t have the resources to devote to that right now.

However, as far as “retaining existing knowledge of metal working is hard”, I really don’t think this is plausible. Nobody has lost the knowledge of how to sand down a piece of cast iron so that it’s smooth. This is something you can do at home, there are instructions available online… this isn’t a lost art. The “only a few old experts still know how to do this” argument, or the “this is a very advanced technique and so only the best people in the industry can do this” argument, do not make sense here.

The same applies to all the other examples I mentioned. We still know perfectly well how to make borosilicate glassware, how to cast aluminum, how to make simple plastic parts, how to use stainless alloys that don’t rust, how to stamp a piece of steel with a zigzag hole pattern, etc., etc. None of this is lost knowledge, nor any advanced techniques.

The “innovation” argument simply does not hold water.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2021-11-05T17:51:27.245Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK. I retract the innovation part. My argument doesn't hinge on this being advanced. I still think that you overestimate the strength of your counterargument: 

This is something you can do at home, there are instructions available online… 

I think you overestimate the impact of innovation and underestimate the effort needed to get even simple things reliably to production. Execution is hard. Really hard. And you need dedicated competent people to drive this. And competent people gravitate to more interesting and/or better-paying jobs. Except for the occasional Kickstarter.

Maybe this is easier to see with software: For all the technical problems you can find answers online. On Stackoverflow or already learn this in college. How to build a scalable resilient infrastructure.  How to set up a secure cloud service. But if you check nobody does it that way. It turns out that knowing how to do it is not enough.    

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-05T17:55:30.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The software example is indeed a good one, but it supports my point, rather than yours. People don’t do these things in the right way, not because (almost) nobody knows how, or can execute, etc., but because they choose not to—because the incentives favor merely pretending to do things the right way (or not bothering even with that).

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2021-11-05T19:49:32.302Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair point. It seems we agree that it is incentives driving this and we place different weight on which incentives specifically. Monetary incentives sure are key but there are both those of the consumer, the producer, the people and the producer, and maybe other actors in the relevant industries. I don't see the primary weight on consumer and producer (and wouldn't even be sure which of these more).

comment by Bezzi · 2021-10-27T20:27:29.253Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

a modern stove designed and built to last a hundred years would be too expensive. It would take a bigger engineering effort (fixed cost) and probably more/better materials (variable cost). And it’s totally unnecessary.

I'm a bit skeptical about this point. It seems reasonable to avoid focusing all the effort into designing a very long-lived stove, but I wouldn't be too surprised to learn about someone who did the very opposite (intentionally designing short-lived stoves even if some minor modifications would have had large impact on their lifespan). I agree that new items are generally better than old items in many ways, but Planned obsolescence is a thing. According to Wikipedia, in 2015 the French National Assembly established jail terms of up to two years for manufacturers planning the failure of their products. Knowing this, I would strongly suspect that some manufacturers do plan the failure of their products. To me, this seems less like positive continual upgrading and more like Moloch...

Replies from: AnthonyC, jasoncrawford
comment by AnthonyC · 2021-10-31T15:51:10.398Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For one thing, why would I believe any manufacturer that made this claim?

It's one thing for very old companies that already are known for longevity and also provide very long warranties, like, say, Le Crueset or Cutco. That's a believable signal built over generations.

But for anyone else, claiming to have increased durability is cheap talk unless it's accompanied by a long-duration and thorough warranty, and a reputation for not making the use of existing warranties unpleasantly difficult and frustrating, and some way of assuring me that that state of affairs will continue.  (As a personal example: I have a GE gas stove bought in 2014, and whatever the situation was before, GE sold their appliance division to Haier in 2016, and customer warranty service got dramatically worse, as attested by several of the 11 customer service agents and 3 technicians I talked to in 2018 to get a replacement for a busted igniter (which is extremely easy to diagnose and fairly quick to replace, I knew what was wrong before the first call and the first customer service rep assured me the first tech would have the part with him when he arrived, but alas).) In any case, a credible signal of durability isn't just a design/engineering/QA expense, it's a deeper corporate infrastructure and organizational expense, and one that is really hard to believe in a world where companies constantly buy and sell divisions of each other, and change executives and strategies, and deal with constant external shocks of various sorts.

Actually, there is one way I can think of top-of-mind that might convince me a company really had engineered for longevity: if the product automatically came with a fully prepaid long-term replacement cost coverage insurance policy from a highly regarded, long-lived third party insurance company. Maybe one that states clearly that if the product breaks (other than usual act-of-god etc. exceptions), and can't be fixed within, say, three attempts over a one month period, the policy pays out, no other exceptions. And it needs to be transferrable - what's the use of a long-lived stove if the next owner of my house can't benefit from the policy? For an actually durable product, this would be cheap to implement, otherwise not so much.

I have the same problem with clothing, but worse. Sam Vimes was wrong, or would be in the modern world. My clothes last about the same number of wash cycles, and have about the same chance of coming clean when I spill things on them, whether I buy a brand of shirt that has a $10 MSRP or a $100 MSRP. And with manufacturing so much cheaper than labor these days, repair of an expensive item, like resoling a shoe, can easily be several times more expensive than an entirely new but cheaper shoe. Especially if I am patient and wait a few weeks or months to buy it on sale when it predictably goes on sale. Actually, I buy most of my t-shirts these days at Michaels (the craft store): comfortable, no logos or tags, wide range of color options, cost less than $4, similar lifespan to every other shirt I have bought in the last decade.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-02T17:57:28.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point in your last paragraph is important and worth emphasizing.

It is often said (as, indeed, in several comments here) that yes, perhaps the new cheap stuff is bad in various ways, but you can always pay more and get good stuff! But in many cases, that is simply false: you cannot pay more (for any even remotely reasonable values of “more”) and get good stuff, because what you get if you pay more is simply the same bad stuff but with more fancy features (or the same bad stuff but from a name brand, or the same bad stuff but with a superficially elegant design, etc., etc.).

Let’s say I look at some inexpensive thing and say: “This does everything I want; alas, it is unreliable, prone to breaking or otherwise failing, is of a poor build quality, does not quite perform to specifications, etc. I would like a thing that is no more ‘advanced’ than this—no fancy features, no exotic accessories, nothing more than what this cheap one’s got—except that it should be good; it shouldn’t break easily, it should be of a superior build quality, it should reliably perform as advertised, etc.”

Nine times out of ten, this desire will never be satisfied. Your choices are “cheap crap” or “expensive crap”.

Replies from: TLW
comment by TLW · 2021-11-05T05:38:02.711Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Imperfect information is rather important here.

If you know that the cheap thing will break, and the expensive thing has a 50% chance of being solid and a 50% chance of being the cheap thing in disguise in a way that you can't immediately tell the difference before the sale, the expensive thing looks far less attractive... which in turn means it's less likely to be sold, and places making an expensive solid product end up doing worse. (But places making an expensive cheap thing in disguise still do well.).

(To which the common response is "just look at reviews/brand history/etc", and the common counter-counter response being to note that just because the version sent to reviewers was good/the brand used to be good doesn't mean that the version in front of you is good.)

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-11-05T06:06:14.956Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, this is an important point.

(To which the common response is “just look at reviews/brand history/etc”, and the common counter-counter response being to note that just because the version sent to reviewers was good/the brand used to be good doesn’t mean that the version in front of you is good.)

That would be a good counter-counter response in a (slightly) more reasonable and sane world than ours, yes. In our actual world it’s actually much worse than that; the response in reality is more like “the brand history means very close to nothing because of rampant extreme short-term thinking, the reviews are likely to be fraudulent/shills/etc., and sometimes the reviews you’re shown are for an entirely different product but you won’t be able to tell because this fact is intentionally obfuscated, and just in general the sellers have every incentive to make it maximally difficult for you to acquire accurate information about the market and the products in it, and no one is able and willing to make them behave honestly”.

Anyway, yes, I agree with your overall point.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2021-10-27T20:46:45.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't researched planned obsolescence; are there any good examples of this?

If extra durability/lifespan (beyond the ~15 years that things already last) were possible with a small increase in cost, why wouldn't manufacturers compete on this axis? I imagine that individual homebuyers don't care that much, but, say, a landlord of a large apartment complex who was making a major purchase of stoves would probably want to optimize for 15 vs. 20 or 25-year lifespans. They would have someone doing the calculation.

Replies from: Dustin, Vanilla_cabs, Yoav Ravid, Bezzi, TLW
comment by Dustin · 2021-10-27T23:15:21.395Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Phoebus Cartel

The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2021-10-28T05:50:27.036Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the reason for planned obsolescence is that it saves expenses designing products this way. Sometimes, they design appliance so that a small part breaks after a specific time (not too long after the warranty expires). This requires special effort.

I think the problem, for the manufacturer, of making durable products is that you're succeeding your way out of business. If consumer's needs are met for the decades to come, then there's no need to make more products. We live in an economy were it's not products that are made to meet consumer's needs, but consumer's needs that are shaped (through marketing) to meet production. That's the definition of a consumer society I was taught: growth is driven by consumption.

Replies from: Dustin
comment by Dustin · 2021-10-28T16:16:57.175Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing this comment makes me want to highlight is that sometimes shaping consumers "needs" is a good thing.

Sometimes the consumer doesn't know that this crazy new invention will actually make their life (or maybe just their descendants' lives) better.  After all, horses/no-electricity/no-computers all served me just fine thank you very much!

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-10-28T05:48:01.051Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ink Cartidges 

Apple deliberately lowing down phone processors

The planned obsolescence Wikipedia page has more examples, I suggest reading it. Exploring the what links here page can probably bring more specific examples.

comment by Bezzi · 2021-10-27T21:19:03.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If extra durability/lifespan (beyond the ~15 years that things already last) were possible with a small increase in cost, why wouldn't manufacturers compete on this axis?

Because Moloch. If at least one major manufacturer add extra lifespan, that forces the others to compete. But the real profit-maximizing move for major manufacturers as a whole is to conspire into selling short-lived stoves.

As for examples, one of my favorites is this (Samsung printers programmed to stop working after a fixed number of prints). The Wikipedia page linked in my first comment contains other examples.

Replies from: Linch, Yoav Ravid, jasoncrawford
comment by Linch · 2021-10-27T23:09:13.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because Moloch. If at least one major manufacturer add extra lifespan, that forces the others to compete. But the real profit-maximizing move for major manufacturers as a whole is to conspire into selling short-lived stoves.

Why would Moloch (the metaphorical God for "coordination problems are hard") be the appropriate metaphor for conspiracy?

Replies from: samuel-shadrach, Bezzi
comment by acylhalide (samuel-shadrach) · 2021-10-28T16:26:38.973Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because people at large are not able to coordinate to make what they really want, for each other. So they make do with a capitalist model - with rules and enforces of exchange, units of accounting, corporate structures, etc. Which then allows the few to coordinate at the cost of the many.

comment by Bezzi · 2021-10-28T06:32:00.146Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, "conspire" was the wrong word (as others have noted, information asymmetry is enough, and I don't think that manufacturers literally gather in smoke-filled rooms to adjust the lifespan of their products). But I still think Moloch to be a valid metaphor for a situation where:

  • customers are forced to buy short-lived products
  • manufacturers could unilaterally prolong the lifespan of their products at a small cost (or even a small gain), but they choose not to because they want to sell more now
  • long-lived products could be sold at higher prices
comment by Yoav Ravid · 2021-10-28T04:23:36.256Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not even sure that it's such a competitive move for a company to make. Sure, you might get to sell more at the start, but then everyone has their long-lasting products and there's no demand, so you too are stuck. It's a viable option only if you never supply enough to satisfy demand (say, you're a small business that constantly gets new customers, just not many), otherwise it's a bad long term strategy.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2021-10-27T23:58:43.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How does the conspiracy survive when each individual member has a motivation to defect? (Not saying it can't, I just don't understand the dynamics.)

Replies from: clone of saturn, Dustin, samuel-shadrach
comment by clone of saturn · 2021-10-28T02:25:13.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think any conspiracy is necessary, just information asymmetry. For example, suppose modern stoves are controlled by microchips, and microchips can be programmed to self destruct after X hours of use. The manufacturer can choose any value of X, and the consumer has no way to determine the value of X. Since every broken stove represents a new potential customer, (and especially when the largest "competitor" is stoves that are already installed and the user is happy with rather than new competing products,) each manufacturer has an incentive to choose the smallest value of X that the consumer will tolerate without resorting to extreme measures (e.g. living without a stove, or politically banning self-destructing chips). The consumer cannot "vote with their wallet" since each manufacturer faces the same incentive and will arrive at a similar value of X. Manufacturers also have an incentive to spread memes which encourage people to accept even smaller values of X, such as this very post.

comment by Dustin · 2021-10-28T16:22:01.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even if conspiracies are necessary (though I agree with clone of saturn that they probably aren't) and even if the conspiracy can't survive, it can usually survive for some amount of time and during this time many people become a victim.  Couple this with the fact that there could be many conspiracies across many different products.

So, if you accept that these conspiracies exist, and my points above are true, it doesn't seem too crazy to think that the average consumers house is full of products with planned obsolescence.

comment by acylhalide (samuel-shadrach) · 2021-10-28T16:32:43.227Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is an entire field of research (monopolies, anti-trust, etc) and an entire field of business practice but off the top of my head:

 - More profit when they coordinate versus compete by lowering prices

 - Small number of firms so they are capable of coordination

 - This coordination often even happens without actually communicating with the other firms. (Although ofcourse, speaking is helpful)

 - Entry costs, network effects, info asymmetries, brand value, niche etc. can ensure no new firms enter the market, only incumbent monopoly survives

comment by TLW · 2021-11-05T05:57:09.318Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If extra durability/lifespan (beyond the ~15 years that things already last) were possible with a small increase in cost, why wouldn't manufacturers compete on this axis?


I'll offer a slightly different take on this. Namely: there's no reliable way to communicate this to customers at a decent lag time, so the actual price premium customers are expected to pay for this is too low to be worth it.

Warranty periods only matter given:

1. People are confident that the company will be around for the duration.
2. People are confident that the company will honor them.
3. People don't mind the time/annoyance of potential warranty calls.
4. Warrantee periods are correlated with actual time-to-failures.

Unfortunately, 1 and 2 are not really possible now. Say you put out a new product with a 25y warranty. And you have a fund put aside to deal with failures. Great! Only... it's a 25y warranty . That's a long timespan. How do you protect against the next CEO running things into the ground? Or spinning off that small segment into a separate company with not enough of a fund due to "optimistic" estimates and then having that portion go bankrupt?

And meanwhile someone else will also put out a product with the same 25y warranty, where say 25% of products will fail within 10-15y and they are banking on people not to actually return them, and hence they can sell them cheaper. And so you get outcompeted on price.

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-10-28T02:51:44.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A more pessimistic interpretation is that competition placed pressure on manufacturers to cut costs without a corresponding increase in quality. While in theory, competition should tend towards creating products that maximize consumer satisfaction, it won't do so if consumers cannot fully evaluate the quality of a product. Or if consumers have sufficiently high discount rates that they are not thinking about the long-term.

As clone of saturn noted, one need not posit a conspiracy for planned obsolescence to occur. The ordinary process of increasing profits combined with information asymmetry is more than sufficient. I wouldn't go as far as saying that the old products are better, but I'd suspect that over time, manufacturers starting placing greater emphasis on "what will sell" relative to "what represents high quality craftsmanship."

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2021-10-28T19:46:57.010Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As clone of saturn noted, one need not posit a conspiracy for planned obsolescence to occur. The ordinary process of increasing profits combined with information asymmetry is more than sufficient. I wouldn't go as far as saying that the old products are better, but I'd suspect that over time, manufacturers starting placing greater emphasis on "what will sell" relative to "what represents high quality craftsmanship."

I understand how this can be an explanation for level effects, but not how this can explain the delta.

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-10-28T21:31:02.308Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't have concrete data to back this up, but I'd expect the market for selling consumer goods is much more competitive than 100 years ago, given the rise of globalization, and increasing trade more generally.

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2021-10-28T23:45:32.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm so framed another way, I think the claim is that capitalism previously had created inner optimizers in individuals interested in "high quality craftsmanship," but over time the alignment problem has been better solved with more optimization power and now individuals/companies are better optimized for selling goods. Does this sound like an accurate paraphrase of your position? 

(FWIW it sounds pretty plausible to me)

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-10-29T00:14:32.029Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does this sound like an accurate paraphrase of your position?

I'd say roughly, yes. However, I would interpret with caution the idea that there is a coherent objective function implied by the market that we have recently gotten better at solving.

comment by MondSemmel · 2021-10-28T11:23:01.577Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand the economic arguments for this position, and I do agree with them up to a point. Basic "companies have just gotten greedier" arguments certainly don't work by themselves and require further questionable assumptions, like a monopoly or collusion between competing companies, or a consumer base that always accepts the price-quality tradeoffs.

But I don't have the impression that this essay passes the Intellectual Turing Test of its opponents, nor that it mentions or argues against their strongest arguments. Was it written in a spirit of genuine curiosity of whether the claim was true, or was its bottom line already written in advance?

Anyway, here are some stronger arguments for "consumer products are getting worse" that sound reasonable to me:

  • Modern review culture (on Amazon, Youtube, etc.) reviews tons of products directly after they're newly available (e.g. because Google and other feeds promote new content over old content). So reviews optimize for criteria they can immediately check and neglect those they can't, like most types of durability (whereas e.g. "does this smartphone display get scratched by the keys in my pocket" is easy to show in a 5-minute video review). I can't find it now, but I remember an essay about pocket knives, which argued that this review style even leads to the invention of some new review criteria, like a pointless "flick test" for pocket knives (i.e. how satisfying is it to open & close the knife quickly), because this can be demonstrated quickly in a video, whereas things we might actually care about (does this knife cut well, is it injury-prone, will it rust within a year) can't be tested quickly and so are pretty much ignored.
  • Maybe we've just gotten worse at doing stuff. Jonathan Blow argues this point extensively on the topic of software development and programming (here is a 1-hour-talk on the topic): e.g. supposedly very low output per programmer at companies like Facebook or Twitter, relative to their exceedingly modest engineering challenges; slow and buggy websites and apps; endlessly increasing levels of abstraction and the growing "technology stack" of modern websites; software getting worse which negates much of the improvement in hardware performance from Moore's Law; etc. It's not clear here whether we're just making worse software because it costs less and is considered "good enough" by consumers, or whether our civilisation has become unable to obtain quality even if it needed to optimize for it.
  • Or maybe we haven't gotten worse at making products but have been forced to make worse ones, e.g. due to regulation imposing bad design restrictions.
comment by Alex N (alex-n) · 2021-10-27T21:10:47.069Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"safer mutual interdependence" - I challenge the "safer" part. As we have observed throughout the pandemic, an interdependent system fails easily. Multiple single points of failure exist, and since reliability isn't the goal - economy is - fixing them has proven near impossible. 

Self-reliance is much less efficient, hence disappearing, but more robust. If major shocks happened more often, we'd see more of it.

Replies from: tvt35cwm, jasoncrawford, Dustin, samuel-shadrach
comment by Greg van Paassen (tvt35cwm) · 2021-10-28T07:02:22.706Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I hold the opposing view. The pandemic showed the strength of the interdependent system compared to the alternative.  A hypothetical global collection of self-reliant households would have suffered far more from the virus alone, and almost certainly still more from subsequent failures. Of their harvests, say.

Self-reliance may be more robust in the sense of being a default mode of existence, one to which we collapse back sometimes, but it is most definitely not safer for the people suffering it.  Just look at the California gold fields in the late 19th century, or the modern-day suburbs of Lagos which are no-go areas for the police and army, and in which households must perforce rely on themselves, compared to your own existence.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2021-10-28T00:19:09.943Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the point is not that interdependence is inherently safer, but rather that, all things considered, industrial civilization is both safer and more interdependent than the pre-industrial world. The electric grid, for instance, makes us much more interdependent than tallow candles or kerosene lamps, but it's also much safer than using flames for lighting inside the home. The added risk from interdependence is more than compensated for by other factors.

comment by Dustin · 2021-10-27T23:19:09.723Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't really know one way or the other, but I don't think the pandemic proves that mutual interdependence is not safer than self-reliance.  It's not "perfectly safe mutual interdependence".

f major shocks happened more often, we'd see more of it.

Isn't that kind of the point?  We don't suffer major shocks often enough to make self-reliance the safer overall choice.  (Or at least that is the claim one would make if one were convinced the mutual interdependence was safer than self-reliance)

comment by acylhalide (samuel-shadrach) · 2021-10-28T16:37:56.196Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Less efficient comes with risk as well.

More people died due to various reasons that we can now protect against - disease, fire, famine.

What may be true is there is more systemic risk today, i.e., everyone affected simultaneously, rather than just one house or village or country.

All in all it'll require more depth to analyse. Pandemics sucked in the past too - atleast we today understand how to contain their spread.

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2021-10-28T05:39:11.661Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The example you give feels like a strawman. Have you considered:

  • Planned obsolescence is a thing.

  • You don't need the last gizmos. A gas stove made in the 70's has all the important features: The heat is controllable with a single dial. A single button triggers electric arcs that start the fire. A pipe leads gas to the stove from your gas tank. It doesn't make smoke. It's safe. Mine last 40 years and would have lasted longer if they produced parts for replacement.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2021-10-28T05:47:00.551Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A single button triggers electric arcs that start the fire.

Indeed, some older gas stoves have an even simpler “pilot light” design that does not require that the stove be electrically powered. This has certain disadvantages (what if the pilot light goes out and small amounts of gas continue to leak into your apartment?—but this is not as bad as it sounds unless the problem remains un-fixed for an extended period of time), but also some notable advantages (stove can be operated even if the power is out; no electrical/electronic components, and thus fewer points of possible breakdown).

Replies from: cousin_it
comment by cousin_it · 2021-10-28T22:39:41.500Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or just keep a piezoelectric lighter.

comment by jmh · 2021-10-28T01:50:58.587Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do frequently find myself in that "they don't make them..." frame of mind. I also believe that part of the answer is located on that planned obsolescence axis but also realize that is a complicated issue to fully establish if you're not part of the decision-making structure for the particular item.

I have also heard of some other views that suggest the less durable nature of many modern products may be influenced a bit by the rate of innovations across a wide range of margins (direct inputs, new functionality/options, build materials,  digital versus analogue process management function...). 

This might be a testable proposition -- if true one would think that in areas where little innovation has existed -- or the significant impact from innovation has been achieved -- competition will push the product towards durability as a positive quality sought by consumers. In the areas where product innovation is just really getting opened up one should see, all things equal, a declining level of durability.

I would think one could also model durability against innovative forces with some degree of accuracy.

Hasn't anyone already done this?

comment by Linch · 2021-10-27T23:07:36.578Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another common belief is that older cars are more crash-resistant than modern cars, with varying explanations. I'm not sure about this but I suspect the belief is very wrong, as can be evidenced by this crash test between a 1959 Chevy and 2009 Chevy.

Replies from: Vanilla_cabs, TLW
comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2021-10-28T05:59:50.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My understanding is that old cars were made of stronger materials that deform less on impact. As a result, it was the content of the car who deformed on impact. The new cars are made less resistant so that the users have better chances to survive an impact. This is a definite progress (and a good excuse for making non-durable cars). In 1999 the new trend was already started. Try a 1960' or 1980' car.

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2021-10-28T19:12:43.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that model would not predict the result at 0:06, fwiw.

Replies from: gjm, Vanilla_cabs
comment by gjm · 2021-11-04T00:28:47.540Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The video makes it really hard to tell exactly what's going on (particularly annoying is the bit at 1:32 where they show an overhead view, which would let us see what's happening to each car without bits of the other one being in the way -- and then cut away from it to yet another nigh-incomprehensible side view at the instant of contact.

But I think there are two things going on here: the newer car has a slightly more squashable front portion, and a much less squashable passenger compartment.

In a head-on collision between the cars, the former doesn't do much to make the newer car look better (though it does make the collision less bad for the occupants of both vehicles) because what's happening is that energy that would otherwise be used for crushing both drivers is used for crushing the newer car's front part instead.

So part-way through 0:29 you can (I think) see that the newer car's front has scrunched up more. But there's still enough kinetic energy, or momentum, or whatever the relevant quantity actually is here, to keep scrunching. As we go through 0:30, the front of the older car also gets crushed. But so does the passenger compartment of the older car, whereas the passenger compartment of the newer car remains largely intact.

So the newer car

  • has a front portion that can absorb more energy by crumpling, which helps reduce the (other) damage to both cars
  • has a stronger and more rigid passenger compartment, so that once the crash has proceeded far enough that the next thing that has to go is either the front of the older car or the passenger compartment of the newer car, it's the front of the older car that goes.
Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2021-11-04T21:05:03.488Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, appreciate the diagnosis!

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2021-10-29T07:06:24.794Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well now I'm confused.

comment by TLW · 2021-11-05T06:07:40.841Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Older cars are more resistant to low-speed collisions than new cars. In a low-speed collision you can often have a new car totaled where an older car would have been fine.

(There was a period where there were US regulations requiring low-speed crashes to not cause significant damage, for one. 1970s or so. (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 215 I believe.))

In higher-speed collisions newer cars are significantly better at keeping the passenger compartment intact than older cars, where things would fail in a haphazard fashion once things do start buckling.

comment by Dustin · 2021-10-28T16:34:56.720Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing I don't see mentioned too often in these discussions:  I often don't care if something doesn't last as long as it possibly could. I like new things so I get them.  I don't want the ratty lookin stove I had 20 years ago. I want one with an induction cooktop, "smart" features, and a design that matches my current decor. Some people derisively call this "consumerism".  I call this a benefit of living in the modern age. (Note that I do not dismiss the downsides of consumerism as invalid.)

I'd be way happier with this state of affairs if it was much easier to recycle/resale/re-gift older products.  Living in a more rural area than most makes it way harder than it should be to not just throw the old product away.

Sometimes I purposefully choose the product that doesn't last as long because it holds too much of a cost premium over a product that won't last as long. Boots and blue jeans are two items that come to mind.

comment by Dave Lindbergh (dave-lindbergh) · 2021-10-28T00:47:04.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cherry picking. How many of those stoves were made 100 years ago? How many are around now?

Some of our 2021 stoves will be around in 100 years, too. Not many. Will someone point at one and say "back in 2021 they built to last"?

(Same reason old European cities are prettier than new American ones - the ugly buildings got torn down and replaced, the pretty ones didn't. After a while you have a lot of pretty buildings.)

Replies from: jasoncrawford, Vanilla_cabs
comment by jasoncrawford · 2021-10-28T04:01:39.450Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, but it's not that hard to imagine that a cast-iron stove could still be working a century later. It's pretty simple as far as I understand it… pretty much just a metal box with doors and a stovepipe.

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2021-10-28T06:23:52.003Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not convinced there was/is a preference for tearing down ugly buildings rather than pretty ones in Europe. A lot of buildings were torn down during the 2 World Wars and many other wars before, and combatants don't choose their targets based on aesthetic preferences.

Also, keeping old buildings pretty requires special effort and expense. Old buildings age, due to erosion, vegetal invasion (you wouldn't believe what damage plants are capable of doing), temperature change (especially when water infiltrated in the joints freezes), pollution, vandalism, terrain instability, etc. Europe has pretty old buildings because it cares about and is willing to invest in pretty old buildings, it's not something that falls into your lap after a dozen centuries.